I love the PI genre. All of them. But in particular the curvy-plotted, smart-alecky character driven ones. This novel fell into that category. But its short coming was the fact that it so thoroughly clung to the genre itself. This led, at least I think, to the writing being somewhat hackneyed in places. I say, “I think,” because it’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s tongue-in-cheek or just a shortcut.
This is perhaps best summed up in the sex scene in chapter 17 (I read the Kindle version which gives me “locations” so I’m going to use the book’s chapters as points of reference). Much of the first person narrative is given over to Johnny “Blue” Heron’s pornographic daydreaming, which is fun and self-consciously shallow (to the point of becoming quasi-philosophical — another thing that draws me to these types of PI stories). So near the convoluted (that’s a good thing) climax of the novel, Heron has a graphically recorded sexual encounter with one of the main characters, Helen Plumworth. It’s a perfect spot to consider the novel because the pornographic reveries and the action of the novel collide and because writing a sex scene is difficult. It’s easy to slip into either mawkish romanticism or ridiculous objective description. So in a lot of ways this is the narrative voice’s climax as well. The result? Still not sure: “I think my cock must have jumped like a released jack-in-the-box.” Then more graphic sex play, which, again, jibes with the confessionally pornographic daydreams Herron indulges in (“I’ve always thought the best way to deal with metaphysical shudders was to cover them with pornographic fantasies” chapter 22). Then: “She lay against me, from head to toe like the statues of Shiva and Shakti welded together. The docent at the museum said it was not erotic, that it was the merging of her rationality with his emotion. Perhaps that explained why I never took religion seriously.” This seems entirely out of place. Ridiculous. But it works too. Daydreaming sex helps him deal with the world; ironically, he can’t seem to help himself from daydreaming museums in the middle of an unfettered physical encounter. That’s funny.
The absurdity of the genre, then, seems to play a role in this fairly straight-forward PI novel. Burke manages to use the tropes of the genre to further the voice (the smart-alecky PI that I love so much) as well as call it into question. I’ll leave you with this Bulwer-Lyttonesque quote to prove the point: “This group was wound together so tightly that if one strand broke the whole mess would fly apart like a house with a gas leak when a chain smoker drops by to follow up on an illicit affair with the bored housewife” (chapter 13). Seriously?
Another thought: use of plays in the novel suggest not only an undercurrent of dramatic action but also that “all the world’s a stage” and so this is a drama within a drama. Furthers the somewhat tongue-in-cheek quality of the book while casting suspicion, at least initially, on the literary ability of Burke to push the boundaries of the genre. And perhaps, after all, he had no intention of doing that.
Overall: **** I bought the second book (Music of the Spheres). The plot turned and twisted enough so that I was surprised and impressed while the voice also steaded and became engrossing. Great book.
Burke, Michael. Swan Dive. New York: Pleasure Boat Studio, 2009.